This morning, I took the dogs for an off leash walk. We are lucky to live in a quiet setting where, most of the time, this is a possibility. On-leash sniffing walks are great, but there is nothing like the choices a dog has for moving and sniffing on an off leash walk.
Sadie, my little nine year old mixed breed, has an arch enemy, or at least she thinks she does. She and the neighbor’s dog, another slightly larger mix named Izzy, took an immediate dislike to each other when they first met. My front yard and Moss’ side yard border each other and when they see each other, they both charge the fence, snarling and barking like complete annihilation is first on their minds. We are both embarrassed by their behavior of course. Moss yells and I try to be heard above the racket to get Sadie to, “leave it,” or, “this way,” if I see what is about to happen.
Moss and I have reconciled ourselves to coping with this long term and just making sure the dogs don’t have access to each other. After all, people don’t always get along.
But today, something interesting happened. At the end of the lane is a field owned by another neighbor, Tasha. She is taking care of Izzy while Moss is away for a few days and her fenced yard borders the field. Sadie noticed Izzy and Izzy noticed Sadie. They ran towards each other snarling and doing their best to escalate to a full blown shouting match . I did an internal eye roll, thinking, “Here they go again.” Then I started thinking about one of the basics of positive dog training; ignore the behavior you don’t want. Instead of walking closer, I stopped and looked away. They both turned to look at me as I watched them out of the corner of my eye. The barking stopped.
Izzy and Sadie both began sniffing the ground, a common calming signal. This was getting really interesting. Turid Rugaas, my teacher, found that dogs use specific body language to help both themselves and each other de-escalate and feel more calm.
This was all reminding me of the classic, “Mom, Sally’s hitting me!” scenario between siblings. As a social worker, I had always counseled parents to try to stay out of these kinds of struggles because getting involved often encouraged the behavior and made it worse. Perhaps Moss’ and my dogs were doing the same thing. They started fighting, we started yelling, and they got us involved. Perhaps each of them thought their person was siding with them and that we were joining the fray. Or maybe our anxiety about their anxiety made them, well, more anxious.
I have seen other versions of this when dogs are on leash. A dog reacts a bit negatively when seeing another dog. The person gets nervous and yanks him back. A reflexive act and hard to keep from doing. But what happens is that the dog feels both his own anxiety and his person’s, conveyed through the leash. So the aggressive behavior intensifies.
Our dogs are so connected to us and we to them. It is that dance of relationship we have, just as we do with the important people in our lives.